The Natural History of the Independent Authors Guild -Celia Hayes
More than any other resource which served to launch me and a fair number of other writers as independently published authors was an eccentric on-line discussion group called the Independent Authors Guild. The first website still exists, to my vague surprise, along with the later wordpress iteration, and the Yahoo discussion group itself, but both are presently close to moribund. The original participating members got what they needed from the group when they needed it desperately. Having done so – we moved moved on; the specifics of publishing and marketing that we shared early on are now available to prospective indy authors from a wide variety of easily-located sources.
We did have some thought early on towards being a professional organization, with membership dues, a board of directors, and the capacity to give a stamp of approval to deserving books. But that level of organization is a time sink the size of Grand Canyon, and the one thing which just about all of the early contributors had in common was that we had day jobs and squeezed in our book-scribbling on the side. We settled forbeing an information forum and support section for each other in the cause of writing the very best books that we could outside of the traditional publishing model, and sharing resources and accumulated knowledge to our mutual benefit.
What became the Guild began around mid-summer of 2007 with an Amazon discussion launched by Dianne Salerni, who at that time had written a single YA historical about the Fox sisters. Dianne invited any author with a historical novel published independently through a POD (publish on demand) house, or by a small traditional publisher to share tips and strategies for marketing our books. Writing the book, as we all had separately discovered, was only half the job. Marketing it was the other half. Dianne was at the time (and may still be) a grade school teacher. The authors who responded to the invitation were all over the map, both in professions and geography. Only one that I know of was even a semi-professional writer, although a few had hung around on the periphery of the traditional publishing game; lawyers, academics, techies, graphic designers, a long-time financial advisor for non-profits …there was a lot of real-world professional experience out there among us. One of the first joint projects undertaken for marketing books was to take a table at a local festival market, which worked out quite splendidly for the half-dozen author members located close enough so that they could participate. This inspired us to set up a website of our own, as well as the Yahoo discussion group, which would be easier to manage than the Amazon thread.
Only two or three of the original writers appeared to have more than a single book out; Janet Elaine Smith was the champion of all, with something like eighteen. She was a retired missionary living in the mid-west, with a whole string of Christian romances and historicals and a part-time job as publicist at a small traditional regional press. Janet was a bubbling fountain of information, as well as being an advocate of thinking outside the box when it came to places to sell your books. For example, it was her suggestion – and only one of dozens – that bed and breakfasts and boutique shops located near the setting of your book might be excellent outlets for your book. It was also her suggestion to always carry postcards, or book markers, or business cards with your book information on them, and when people casually asked about what you do for a living, always admit to being a writer, because the next question invariably would be, “Well, what do you write?” She was also the one who explained how every book that we wrote was an advertisement for all of our other books. This is probably common knowledge among author entrepreneurs now, but in 2007 it was new to most of us – who again were mostly first-time authors with little experience in marketing our own books. And a website with a domain name reflecting the author’s name were the best, rather than a website tailored around the title of your book or some off-the-wall title where it wouldn’t be obvious. Because of course you were going to write more books. Most of us did go on to write more … just like Janet Elaine.
Janet had been doing the end run around traditional publishing for years. If I remember correctly, one of her early books had been printed on a copier at the local office supply store and assembled with a plastic comb binding. Only one other early member had any serious connection to the rarified world of traditional best-sellerdom; Lloyd Lofthouse, whose wife is Anchee Min. Lloyd had written an epic historical set in 19th century China, “My Splendid Concubine” and regaled us with horrific stories now and again concerning questionable contracts, and the shenanigans that even an author with a contract with one of the big traditional publishing houses might expect. It was his considered opinion that between the inexpensive technology of POD/digital printing and the development of on-line retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble allowed us to route around the gatekeepers of what I called the Literary-Industrial Complex to our greater benefit. Better we should turn our energies away from trying to catch the brass ring of a traditional publishing contract, and concentrate on the new paradigm of independent publishing. He also suggested blogging in as many different venues as an adjunct to writing novels … and to dress up in something eye-catching when doing an appearance for your book. He favored dressing in classic Chinese brocaded Mandarin robes, which is about as eye-catching as you could get.
A handful of other writers had already set up as their own publisher, rather than deal with one of the existing POD publishers, as I had initially with my first two books. Frances Hunter – actually two sisters from Austin, Texas – had done that for a wonderfully evocative novel about Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and then a follow-up about Lewis & Clark’s early years, pre-expedition into the far west. Michael S. Katz also set up his own tiny publishing company, Strider Nolan Media, to do his first book – a skewed western adventure about a Jewish railway detective on the hunt for train robbers on the frontier, titled Shalom on the Range. When I did the first edition of the Adelsverein Trilogy, Mike published them under the aegis of Strider Nolan. He has since published other books by early IAG contributors, notably for Jack Shakely and Barry Yelton. Jack and Barry both had novels set in the Civil War, based on the experiences of a veteran ancestor, but Jack’s was set in the Cherokee Nation, titled “The Confederate War Bonnet.” Eventually, I partnered with a small local publisher to set up a POD imprint to publish my own books and those of others.
Barry also did a book of poetry, illustrated with photographs taken by Al Past, of Beeville, Texas – yet another early IAG member. Al wrote a sort-of science fiction adventure series, “Distant Cousin” – another of those books which defy easy categorization, and I would swear that he was an even better photographer than a writer. He let me use his photographs for the Trilogy, and for Daughter of Texas. Oh, yes, – intense were the discussions over how to get the biggest bang, impact-wise for next to nothing, when it came to covers. F. J. Warren suggested using landscape photographs with an artistic filter to look like a painting and someone else – I cannot recollect who – thought that period architecture or a still life of authentic artifacts could also work well. Utilizing classic art in the public domain was another useful suggestion – backed up with links to sources for this kind of thing. And how and where to get reviews of our books? This was another looming issue, resolved by Michael Katz. He even told us about what to put in a press kit; a revelation to those of us who had never even considered the question before.
Another early member, who sadly passed away early in the life of the IAG was Stephen Knutson, a retired game warden living in Alaska. He had a memoir about his life, growing up in Boise, Idaho, which contained one of the most purely comic chase scenes I have ever read. In an attempt to escape the local police who were chasing him – not without reason, for he and his buddy had just ripped off the front door of the rival high school in town by means of attaching a chain from the hitch of his pick-up truck through the door handle – Stephen and his buddy took a short-cut at high speed through a downtown park, with the door flapping and bouncing along behind them. After one particularly violent lurch, the door bounced up and knocked a static aircraft on display in the park clean off its plinth. This is possibly the only time in history that an aircraft has been shot down by a high-flying door … and many of Stephen’s stories were in a similar vein. But he was the one who outlined, step by step, how to format a manuscript into a file for print publication, and how to set up an account at Lightning Source International. He and others instructed us on how to set pricing, and the importance of the 40% discount and returnability, in order to get our books available in retail outlets through Ingram, the distributor associated with LSI.
All of this terribly useful information was scattered hither and yon the length and breadth of the internet, or socked away in various book blogs, so it was no end useful to have it all filtered and gathered into a single long and wide-ranging discussion among people who had real-life experience relevant to the issues. By very fortunate circumstance, just as the IAG coalesced, Amazon brought out the first generation Kindle, and invited authors to make their books available on Amazon in Kindle e-book versions. The most technology-minded of our members realized the implications of this almost instantly; no more print and distribution costs. Many of us rushed to Amazon to set up our books in Kindle edition that year, seeing an opportunity somewhat in advance of the panjandrums of the Literary Industrial Complex. It was a fraught and tedious process that first year, and the Kindles themselves did not become immediately popular. By Christmas 2008 they had become the electronic toy of choice, and Amazon had worked out most of the bugs involved. Through lengthy discussion, we had also settled on pricing: .99 was an undervaluing of one’s work, although it was a madly popular choice for some e-book authors. The price of a good cup of gourmet coffee – from $3 to $5 was the sweet spot; just enough that our hard work was rewarded, but sufficiently inexpensive that potential readers might be tempted to dip into a book by a relative unknown. If the reader liked it – then they (per Janet Elaine) might be interested enough to try out our other books.
As for when the discussions on the IAG board began to slack off? I would guess at about 2011 or 2012. Increasingly the essential information to publish independently became more or less common knowledge, and those of us who had been active early on had less and less inclination to plow over old ground. We had what we needed from the group discussions, and varying degrees of success in applying the principles learned. Diane Salerni, who began it all, actually got a contract from a moderately sized publishing house. So did Brandy Purdy – and sometime in about 2009, I got a frantic email message from another author member who had also just gotten an offer of a contract, and wanted me to remove her name and book from the IAG website forthwith. In her mind, it would have been very embarrassing to be identified as an indy author. Regardless of that, Frances, Michael, and I, along with some other contributors, still own and run Tiny Publishing Businesses of our own. And to judge by a quick check on Amazon, most of the rest are still writing … independently.